This column spoils me.
I ask interesting businesspeople — from moguls to gritty grinders — nosy questions like how much money they make or what their biggest mistakes in life were. The stories just last year include an eye-opening anecdote about a White House official talking about getting dumped by the world’s richest man, to a businesswoman riffing on the advantages of an all-girls school, to a hotel chief executive explaining why it is best to make mistakes early in your career.
I heard several edifying, and some just plain illuminating, anecdotes. I kept mental notes of them when they did not make it into my columns and stories.
Herewith are some outtakes from last year’s interviews:
Investor Fred Malek was a bigwig in the Nixon White House in the 1970s when he got a call from shipping tycoon Daniel K. Ludwig, then the richest man in America, asking him to be chief of staff for the “quiet, subdued, mysterious and extremely private” businessman.
“He makes me an offer,” said Malek. “I accept the offer as chief of staff. My wife is up in Greenwich, Conn., looking for a place to live. I resign from the administration. Some publication, like The Washington Post, had a reasonable story on it . . . ‘Is this the start of the exodus?’ It was a pretty big story.
“Once this appeared, he went bananas and fired me before I even got there. He just didn’t like the exposure. It was pretty embarrassing and humiliating, as well as not too cost-effective to be fired, to have resigned from the administration and have nowhere to go.
“I wrote him a letter and said, ‘Look, this isn’t right. You need to pay me.’ ”
Ludwig gave Malek enough consulting work for a year.
Ludwig firing him may have turned out to be the best thing, but “it didn’t seem so great at the time,” Malek recalled, laughing.
Malek, 77, recovered and went on to run Marriott, Northwest Airlines, own part of the Texas Rangers baseball team and make a fortune in private equity.
“You don’t accept defeat,” he said of the Ludwig debacle. “You get right back up on a horse and push ahead.”
Greg Vetter didn’t push. He pivoted.
Vetter, 31, was selling insurance when someone said the wrong thing to him at a party a few years back.
“So I am 25 at the time and . . . I met a guy at an Annapolis party and he said, ‘Oh yeah, you’re the insurance guy.’ I looked at him.
“What do you mean I’m the insurance guy?
“He went on to explain that a person’s profession becomes your identity, so I will be known as the insurance guy.
“At that time in my life, I was playing professional lacrosse, coaching youth lacrosse and doing insurance. But a quote by [John F. Kennedy] popped into my head that the ancient Greek definition of happiness was the ‘full use of your powers along the lines of excellence.’
“At that moment, I realized I wasn’t happy at all, and I needed to do something more with my life. I was not going to live another day as the ‘insurance guy.’ ”
Vetter soon after started Tessemae’s All Natural salad dressing, which now employs 150 people, and sells more than 5 million units a year. The company makes millions.
And it is insured.
Chevy Chase entrepreneur Frederique Irwin, now on her fourth start-up, had a weird start at Davidson College.
“After spending 11 years at a local all-girls school, St. Agnes in Alexandria, Virginia, I first attended school with boys when I went to Davidson in 1992.
“You can imagine my surprise when, after my first mandatory English class, I was asked along with a few other girls to stay after class. I had no idea why.
“The professor asked [us] whether we had attended all-girls schools before coming to Davidson. One after another we replied yes. ‘I suspected as much,’ he said. ‘Every year I try to pick out the girls coming from the all-girls schools. So far I haven’t missed once.’ ”
How did he know?
“I’m not quite sure. But it certainly had never dawned on me that just because there were boys in the class I might be less engaged or less likely to jump into the conversation.”
Irwin, 40, went on to earn an MBA from William and Mary and now runs a consultancy that coaches women on how to grow their businesses in a male-dominated culture.
Enthusiasm counts for a lot.
Michael Ortner, 41, runs Ballston-based Capterra, a $15 million enterprise whose Web site helps businesses find the right software for their company.
Four years ago, Ortner attended a Georgetown University lecture where he met Andrew Zwerneman, headmaster at Trinity School at Meadow View, a classical school for seventh-to-12th-graders in Falls Church.
“I let him know that I had internship opportunities if he had any students who were interested. He took me up on it and recommended two brothers — Justin and Jonathan Young. Justin was finishing his senior year at Trinity and Jonathan was a 15-year-old who was just finishing his sophomore year.
Capterra’s intern director squeezed the brothers in as a favor to the boss.
“Three weeks into the summer, [the intern director] asked me where I found these two kids. He couldn’t believe how good they were. They were tops in our intern class. They asked good questions, showed initiative, had great research skills and solid writing skills.”
Last year, Capterra employed a record 10 Trinity interns.
“They write well, are great at research and are enthusiastic employees,” Ortner said in explaining what makes them special.
When Christopher Nassetta, 52, now the chief executive of McLean-based Hilton Worldwide, was fresh out of the University of Virginia, one of his first jobs was managing a complex financial restructuring for the Oliver Carr Co., a premier Washington real estate firm that nearly collapsed during a real estate recession.
“It was probably the most valuable experience I had in my career,” said Nassetta, of Arlington. “If you said to me, ‘What would be the one thing early in your career that really set you up for where you are today?,’ that was it. Business is not all about the growth and the good things. It’s also about how you set things up recognizing there are business cycles.
“At a very early age, in an early, impressionable time in my career, I learned what not to do as much as I learned what to do. That’s not an experience everybody is fortunate enough to have. If you only see good things at the early stages of your career, you might not have as balanced a perspective. So I got lucky.
“I was in the right place at the right time.”